Monday, November 30, 2015

Where to Start on Your First Korea Trip & Which Cities to Put on Your Must-Do List

By Cynthia Dial as appeared in

A country of contrasts and a land of the times, Korea is a surprising blend of out-of-the-norm pairings and an appealing reflection of its past, present and future. From Buddhism and baseball to a demilitarized zone and digital billboards, Korea serves up a setting that is both ancient past and beckoning beginnings.

Though only the size of Great Britain, the history of this East Asian country is long –5,000 years. Bounded on three sides by water (Sea of Japan, Yellow Sea and Korean Straight), sharing a border with North Korea and counting amongst its neighbors China, Japan and Russia, Korea’s geography could be considered complicated. But this same geography yields four distinct seasons: winter’s ski resorts and cold weather sports (even ice skating rinks in downtown Seoul), spring’s commencement of hiking and abundance of flowers (notably cherry blossoms in April), summer’s miles of beaches and countless water parks and autumn’s palette-like foliage within 16 national mountain parks.

To best delve into Korea launch your journey in Seoul, the nation’s action-around-the-clock capital city of 10 million. Its efficiency is readily apparent . . . from its computerized bus stops to a museum’s rainy day solution for wet umbrellas – a customized shrink-wrap machine.

Reflective of the country’s complementary yin and yang, Seoul’s cityscape consists of age-old palaces next to soaring skyscrapers, a lively street culture alongside its family-first philosophy and a fashion-forward reputation accompanied by a diverse gastronomic scene.

Let’s begin with an overview – from the water and from above. Whether you cruise through the middle of town along the Hangang River, stroll along the city’s Cheonggyecheon Stream running between downtown’s towering buildings or visit N Seoul Tower (the city’s highest point from which clear days reveal North Korea), each presents the perfect preview.

The heart of Seoul, perhaps of Korea, is Gyeongbok Palace. Built in 1395, it was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty that today attracts thousands of annual tourists, especially during one of its three-times-a-day changing of guard.

Named by CNN as one of world’s best shopping cities, Seoul is synonymous with aisle action.

The Myeong-dong area has been rated the city’s number one tourist destination. In addition to the flagship stores of mega-retailers Lotte and Shinsegae, it is also home to alleyways of boutiques and more than 100 stores specializing in skin care (including such regional specialties as snail masks, BB and CC creams).

For night owls, there’s Dongdaemun Fashion Town, where modern shopping malls coexist with traditional wholesale markets and are open till dawn. Existing for more than a century, Gwangjang Market is your most authentic option – it’s the place to shop for hanbok (traditional dress) and to sample Korea’s famous foods, especially bindaetteok (mung bean pancake).

A bargaining tip for markets is to start at 50% and negotiate from there. When dealing with traditional outlets, ask about the luxury tax refund for purchases over 30,000 won (approximately $26 US). It’s a stamped document to be redeemed at the airport. 

While Korea features such international cuisine as French, Italian and Japanese, it is best known for its street food. Among the addictive options are hotteok (sugar-filled pancakes), dak kkochi (glazed skewered chicken pieces) and ice cream. Baskin-Robbins is celebrated here, perhaps for its exclusive-to-Korea flavor called “Shooting Star,” named for its popping candy fizz-in-the-mouth sensation. 

Seoul is a cosmopolitan conglomeration. While signage along its thoroughfares announces such internationally-acclaimed exhibitions as Ansel Adams and Botero, Korea House presents the country’s most traditional performing art. Showcased in a variety of vignettes, singers, drummers and dancers that seemingly float across the stage transport Korea House’s guests back in time. Korea’s most contemporary entertainment is K-Pop, an Asian musical phenomenon. A concert of boy (and some girl) bands, the style is defined by animated beats, choreographed group dance, catchy tunes and a youthful audience coming from such distances as Japan.

Though highly energized, Seoul is only one part of Korea. Quickly and easily reached by Korail (the country’s bullet train traveling up to speeds of 186 mph), you’ll reach Busan. Once a small fishing village and now a major shipping port, this is the country’s richest city. Home to the Jagalchi Fish Market (Korea’s largest) and Asia’s top film festival, the Busan International Film Festival, it also claims a Guinness World Record holder – Shinsegae Centum City is the world’s largest department store.

Busan is additionally complemented by Haeundae Beach, one of the country’s best known strands of sand. Lined with five-star hotels and premier restaurants, it transforms each summer to a magnet for sunseekers, attracting thousands of beachgoers and endless rows of beach umbrellas. To best appreciate the area, wander the Circular Promenade overlooking the well-known shoreline.

Continuing into the countryside, you’ll pass fields of locust flowers and rows of curved tile roofs in route to Gyeongsangbuk-Do province. Called “another Korea within Korea,” it’s like an open-air museum. As home to several of the country’s 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this is the address of Bulguksa Temple (established in 751), Korea’s oldest wooden structure where Buddhist monks remain active.

The province is also the setting of two major Confucian academies and Andong Hahoe Village, a centuries-old community and current home to 125 families. Famous for its masks, it hosts the annual International Mask Dance Festival. The village center’s 600-year old zelkova tree is a magnet for handwritten wishes (they’re attached to its surrounding fence). And its version of the country’s notorious high-octane proof whiskey, Soju, is 45% alcoholic content.

A little known Korean factoid is that two-thirds of its land mass is 2,300 feet above sea level. Within this predominately winter-weather region is Pyeongchang county. Called the “Alps of Asia,” it will host the 2018 Winter Olympics. There’s no need to guess your arrival as the Alpensia ski jumping tower is visible for miles. For a pre-Olympic treat, visit the tower’s museum, its high-above-ground wall of locks where you can attach your own and the viewing platform for a personal preview of athletes’ pre-jump perspective (caution: not for acrophobics). 

Stretching through three counties of Gangwon-do province, Korea’s most iconic mountain is Mt. Seorak. Serving up the perfect presentation of Buddhist temples, lush green valleys, dense forests and towering granite peaks, it is best appreciated from the Seorak Cable Car for a ride to its top.

However, it is the shared border with North Korea that generates the most intrigue. An Armistice Agreement signed July 27, 1953, established the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the North and South. While only 35 miles from Seoul, it is not possible to visit North Korea; and though it is possible to visit the DMZ, it is recommended to do so with an established tour operator (HanaTour is Korea’s largest travel company).

But no matter where your adventures take you, we have a feeling you won't be disappointed.

Photos by Cynthia Dial

#travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #korea 

Travel Quote of the Day

Photo by Cynthia Dial
 "Once a year go someplace you've never been before."
Dalai Lama

#travel #travelquote #travelingcynthia

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Day 2 - British Columbia - Vancouver Island - Wickaninnish Inn

Tofino, home to the Wickaninnish Inn, offers something for everyone . . . from beach walks . . . to forest hikes . . .  to micro brews . . . to more storm watching.

#exploreBC #travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #wickaninnishinn #stormwatching

British Columbia - Vancouver Island - Wickaninnish Inn

Upon learning that Relais & Chateaux affiliated Wickaninnish Inn, located on Vancouver Island's west coast, is known for its storm watching, a visit during inclement weather has been my goal. 

Fast forward to today. Yesterday's arrival from San Diego was to a chilly but clear Vancouver. This morning, however, was different. My ride to the airport was in rain. Upon checking in at Orca for my commuter flight to Tofino on Vancouver Island, I learn that due to weather, we must land in Qualicum Beach and drive 2.5 hours to Tofino and the Wickaninnish.  

My dream is coming true.

After driving through rain and snow, I've arrived . . . in Tofino . . .  at the  Wickaninnish . . . for storm watching. Success!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Omni La Costa - Blue Fire Grill - Chef Marc Therrien

Sampling the flavors of Chile tonight with Chef Marc Therrien, executive chef with Omni La Costa's Blue Fire Grill. Having traveled to Chile in June for a three-day immersion in the country's cuisine and cooking techniques, the evening with Chef promises to be a delicious one.

#travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #omnilacosta #lacosta #bluefiregrill

Paris - Friday, November 13, 2015

A dark day in the City of Light
Photo by Cynthia Dial

#paris #travelingcynthia

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fashion News - Bittersweet - Bracelet/Ponytail holder

Fashion News:  The latest on the jewelry fashion scene is an unexpected solution to the phenomenon of females wearing as a bracelet (albeit an unattractive one) their elastic ponytail holder on their wrist to ensure, when needed, it's readily available.

Come to the rescue Bittersweet and its founders and owners, Shirleen Palsson and her husband, Arni Ingimundarson, both engineers, who designed a collection of steel plated and sterling silver (silver, gold and rose gold colors) bracelets, onto which the elastic hair holder fits and actually enhances the bracelet.  The price is from $45 to $85.
Photos by Cynthia Dial

To complement this collection is the new addition of b+sweet -- its colorful, less expensive option -- for the younger set.

To view the current collection, go here.

#jewelry #fashionnews #freethewrist #bittersweet #travelingcynthia

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Travel - Dress the Part

Excerpted from Teach Yourself Travel Writing by Cynthia Dial

It is my Holland experience that comically underscores the cultural differences in dress. Visiting as a participant of a golf press trip, I was apprised of the expected attire -- long (not short) pants, collared shirt and golf shoes (no tennis shoes). As a beginner, I was careful to follow the rules, not wishing to draw unwanted attention to myself. Thus, I carefully dressed for the outing at our first golf venue, a public course near Amsterdam.

As we approached the 9th hole I noticed spectators on the opposite side of a water hazard, standing hands on hips. Without my glasses it wasn't until I reached the green that I realized they had no clothes on. The course was next to a nudist camp and apparently two of its participants were golf enthusiasts as well. And I was concerned about wearing a collared shirt!

#travel #traveltips #travelincynthia #holland #golf #traveldress #nudistcolony

Monday, November 2, 2015

Travia - "Cockpit Confidential" - Window Shades, Tray Tables and Seat Backs

Excerpted from 'Cockpit Confidential' by Patrick Smith

Ever wondered why your window shade must be up, your seat back should be returned to its original position, your tray table has to be latched and the cabin lights are dimmed during takeoffs and landings?
Photo by Cynthia Dial

Here's the answer found in 'Cockpit Confidential,' an insider's book written by airline pilot/author, Patrick Smith:

Your tray has to be latched so that, in the event of an impact or sudden deceleration, you don't impale yourself on it. Plus it allows a clear path to the aisle during an evacuation. The restriction on seat recline provides easier access to the aisles and also keeps your body in the safest position. It lessens whiplash-style injuries and prevents you from "submarining," as it's called, under the seat belt. Keep your belts low and tight. Nothing is more aggravating than hearing a passenger voice the theory that should a crash occur they are guaranteed to perish, so what's the point? Most crashes do have survivors, and something as simple as a properly buckled belt could mean the difference between serious and minor injury.

Raising your window shade makes it easier for the flight attendants to assess any exterior hazards -- fire, debris -- that might interfere with an emergency evacuation. It also helps you remain oriented if there's a sudden impact -- rolling, tumbling, etc. Dimming the lights is part of the same strategy. Burning brightly, the glare would make it impossible to see outside. And by pre-adjusting your eyes, you won't be suddenly blinded while dashing for the doors in darkness or smoke.

Thanks, Patrick Smith.

#travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #cockpitconfidential #patricksmith #airplanesafety